Ofcom forced to the front line as TV fast-forwards

After a relatively quiet first year, 2005 will see Ofcom obliged to make some tough decisions as the digital TV revolution gathers pace.

Ofcom must be thanking its lucky stars that the BBC didn’t show Jerry Springer, the Opera last January, when it had just opened its doors as the UK’s communications regulator. It’s exactly the sort of political hot potato a new regulator doesn’t need as it’s struggling to find its feet. A year on, with those feet now firmly under the desk, Ofcom is in a much less exposed position as it makes its judgement on the f-words, c-words and portrayals of Jesus, Mary and Joseph that thousands have complained about.

Last year was a busy, but relatively quiet, one for Ofcom, which astonished everyone with its capacity for work. It churned out scores of consultation documents, analysed the responses and put out yet more reports detailing its conclusions and policy decisions. It created a huge workload for those it regulates. One broadcaster estimates that Ofcom has added 40 per cent to its regulatory costs. But there’ve been few public rows.

In 2005, Ofcom is likely to find itself publicly in the firing line on more than one front, starting with Jerry Springer. It has so far received more than 1,750 complaints following the BBC2 broadcast, to add to the 8,332 it received before the showing. The broadcast is also expected to be challenged in the courts and Ofcom’s ruling will be a high-profile one, not least because the programme has been strongly defended by BBC management and the BBC governors have yet to rule on it. Which way will Ofcom jump?

The next grenade in Ofcom’s pending tray is the cut in ITV’s regional programming commitments. More than 100 MPs have protested about the regulator’s plans to allow ITV to halve its non-news regional output. One Cabinet minister, Peter Hain, said the plans were not acceptable. But Ofcom seems determined to press ahead when it publishes its final recommendations on public service broadcasting in a few weeks’ time.

Then there is the row between ITV and BSkyB over charges for carrying and encrypting channels on Sky Digital. Last week, after negotiations broke down, ITV made a formal complaint. Ofcom must now rule on whether or not Sky’s charges are “unfair, unreasonable and discriminatory” – as ITV alleges and BSkyB denies. For the first time, Ofcom will have to make a ruling between the two powerful broadcasters. That’s expected by April.

And then there is the issue of digital switchover, in which Ofcom is taking a lead role. If 2004 was the year when digital television reached the “tipping point”, 2005 should determine when and how it reaches the “switching point”.

Yet 2004 was a remarkable year for digital TV. Well over half of all homes – 56 per cent – can now receive a digital service, and the turn-of-the year ratings show that multi-channel TV took a higher share of the nation’s viewing last year than BBC1 and ITV1 combined.

The change was particularly marked over Christmas. Well over 20 million of us used to gather round the same programme on Christmas Day, whether Morecambe & Wise or EastEnders. Even two years ago, Only Fools & Horses attracted 17 million. Yet this Christmas Day, the top audience was just 12 million for EastEnders, as viewers scattered to watch their DVDs or one of literally hundreds of digital channels. And in Christmas week, multi-channel TV took 29 per cent of all viewing, a 20 per cent increase on the previous year.

Digital TV’s growth in the past year has come from Freeview, which has attracted millions of viewers who had previously rejected multi-channel – presumably because they didn’t want to pay a subscription. The digital terrestrial service has reached 4 million homes in just two years, whereas Sky’s growth has slowed significantly – though with 7 million UK homes paying up to £40 a month, it’s not exactly on its uppers.

All this has created a healthy platform for the Government to commit itself more firmly to digital switchover by the current target date of 2012. Next month, the first analogue transmitter is due to be switched off, as part of a pilot scheme, and Ofcom will be in the thick of it.

As telecoms and broadcasting regulator, Ofcom has already set out a strategy for digital switchover – if the Government chooses to accept it. But its ruling on the ITV-BSkyB spat will also have a bearing, as it could affect whether or not ITV follows the BBC’s precedent and broadcasts unencrypted on satellite. If it does, the two biggest terrestrial broadcasters could create and promote a subscription-free satellite service to challenge the one quietly launched last year by Sky. That in turn could give a substantial boost to digital switchover. Many parts of the UK cannot receive Freeview and will need satellite or cable to receive a digital service.

But of course, achieving full digital switchover won’t be easy, or popular. It’s one thing for people to opt voluntarily for a digital service, quite another to have their analogue signal snatched away – which is another reason Ofcom could find itself in the firing line in 2005.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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